United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, E.D
June 26, 1981
JAMES SKODA AND MICHAEL CALLAHAN, PLAINTIFFS,
CARL FONTANI, DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Aspen, District Judge:
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
On June 9, 1980, a jury returned a verdict in this civil rights
case in favor of the plaintiffs in the amount of $1.00 each. On
September 10, 1980, this Court denied plaintiffs' motion for
attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 on the
grounds that, based upon the token amount of the award,
plaintiffs are not truly the "prevailing" parties within the
meaning of the statute. On April 2, 1981, the Seventh Circuit
Court of Appeals, 646 F.2d 1193 (7th Cir.), reversed and
On remand, the district court should consider whether
any special circumstances exist, and if not, should
decide the appropriate amount of the fee award in
light of these decisions.
The "special circumstances," however, referred to by the
Circuit Court were, in this Court's view, set forth in our June
9, 1980 order:
Plaintiffs sought $200,000 in their complaint. Prior
to trial they would have settled for $3,000 and could
have settled for at least $1,500. The jury apparently
further discounted the value of plaintiffs' claims in
awarding them $1.00 each.
The Court is appreciative that it was the intent of Congress in
enacting 42 U.S.C. § 1988 to enable plaintiffs to retain counsel
in difficult civil rights cases which but for the statutory fee
award might be without legal representation. But it is doubtful
that Congress envisioned that section 1988 would become the
catalyst for litigating a claim which otherwise would be settled.
During settlement negotiations, it became apparent to this Court
that a major reason why this case did not settle for the nominal
sum that was warranted, and instead went to trial, was because
plaintiffs' attorney would not, in his view, be adequately
compensated if the case were settled for $1,500. Therefore, a
case, that should have been settled,*fn1
was tried on its
merits. The jury more than agreed with both defendants' and
plaintiffs' counsels' low evaluations of plaintiffs' potential
recovery when it awarded each plaintiff $1.00 in damages.
The Circuit Court apparently did not agree that the foregoing
scenario justified a denial by this Court of an award of
attorneys' fees and costs. Therefore, in response to the remand
order it now would be fruitless for this Court to reiterate these
same factors as a basis for "special circumstances." Instead,
pursuant to Circuit Court's opinion, we must now "decide the
appropriate amount of the fee award."
Plaintiffs' counsel request attorneys' fees in the amount of
$10,441.25 and costs of $1,586.12. The Civil Rights Attorney's
Fees Awards Act provides that in civil rights actions under §
1983 and certain other statutes, "the court, in its discretion,
may allow the prevailing party . . . a reasonable attorney's fee
as part of the costs." 42 U.S.C. § 1988 (1976). This discretion
is limited to a degree, in that a successful plaintiff "should
ordinarily recover an attorney's fee unless special circumstances
would render such an award unjust." Newman v. Piggie Park
Enterprises, Inc., 390 U.S. 400, 88 S.Ct. 964, 19 L.Ed.2d 1263
(1968); Busche v. Burkee, 649 F.2d 509 (7th Cir. 1981); Murphy v.
Kolovitz, 635 F.2d 662, 663 (7th Cir. 1981). The purpose of the
Act "is to permit and encourage the redress of the civil rights
violations of victims but not to create a civil rights fee bank
to be liberally drawn upon by lawyers for their own welfare," and
the fee award determination is to be based on the totality of the
case in light of the purpose of the Act. Coop v. City of South
Bend, 635 F.2d 652, 655 (7th Cir. 1980).
The task of determining an appropriate award of attorney's fees
in a given case is a complex task involving "the coalescence of
many considerations including the reasonableness of the time
spent by counsel, the extent of counsel's success and the
complexity of the case." Waters v. Wisconsin Steel Works,
502 F.2d 1309, 1322 (7th Cir. 1974). Moreover, attorney's fees are
not to be determined solely on the basis of a formula applying
"hours spent times billing rate," although that may be a
convenient starting point from which adjustments can be made. Id.
Other elements to be considered include the following:
(1) The time and labor required, the novelty and
difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill
requisite to perform the legal service properly.
(2) The likelihood, if apparent to the client, that
the acceptance of the particular employment will
preclude other employment by the lawyer.
(3) The fee customarily charged in the locality for
similar legal services.
(4) The amount involved and the results obtained.
(5) The time limitations imposed by the client or by
(6) The nature and length of the professional
relationship with the client.
(7) The experience, reputation, and ability of the
lawyer or lawyers performing the services.
(8) Whether the fee is fixed or contingent.
Mucare v. Quinn, 614 F.2d 577 (7th Cir. 1980); Waters, supra at
Reviewing this case in light of the standards established in
Waters, Muscare and Busche, the Court finds that this was a
relatively simple and straightforward case, involving neither
complex legal questions nor complex factual situations. There
were no substantive pretrial motions, and discovery was brief and
without incident. While the Court is well aware of the
constitutional dimension of plaintiffs' claim, in its
presentation and preparation, this case was most analogous to the
simplest of tort actions.
The Court further finds that plaintiffs, although prevailing at
law, were, as a practical matter, unsuccessful in achieving much
of what they sought. It must be remembered that plaintiffs sought
$200,000 and that their theory of liability and damages, as
explained in their pretrial order, involved false arrest, false
imprisonment, physical abuse, mental abuse and constitutional
violations.*fn2 The jury, however, awarded the plaintiffs only
The extent of counsel's success is an essential consideration
to be taken into account by the Court, Waters, supra at 1322, and
fees only are to be awarded for work performed on claims in which
plaintiffs succeeded. Busche, supra at 521-522. "The small amount
of the award for damages is an appropriate consideration in the
determination of reasonable fees." Coop v. City of South Bend,
635 F.2d 652, 654 (7th Cir. 1980). Although no special verdict
forms were returned making it impossible for this Court to
ascertain which of plaintiffs' claims the jury decided had been
proven, it is obvious that the extent of counsel's success was as
small as could be, without having lost entirely. It is within the
reasonable range of a trial court's discretion to reduce
attorney's fees "to bring the total compensation allowed into
more reasonable relation with the monetary recovery in the case."
Mary and Crystal v. Ramsden, 635 F.2d 590, 601 (7th Cir. 1980).
Accordingly, given the simplicity of the case and the extent of
plaintiffs' counsels' "success," the Court awards plaintiffs
attorneys' fees and costs in the sum of $6,086.12. It is so